13-year-old D.C. piano prodigy fought truancy charges

Selected as an international music ambassador for her outstanding playing, 13-year-old Avery Gagliano charmed audiences in Munich, Hong Kong and elsewhere with her renditions of Chopin, Mozart and other classical repertoire. Her parents could not charm the District of Columbia Public Schools, however, into treating ten days of travel by the straight-A student as excused absences, although they “drafted an independent study plan for the days she’d miss while touring the world” in performance. They’re homeschooling her now. [Petula Dvorak, Washington Post]

Sequel: The D.C. schools are now trying hard to portray it as all a big misunderstanding. More: Jason Bedrick, Cato.


  • I suppose that if she missed 10 days to play in a sports tournament that would have been OK. High Schools regularly play in spring tournaments and miss school. Disney/ESPN has one for multiple sports from Feb 19th to Apr 25th.

  • Something similar happened to a young lady from my home town who was playing on the US National U-20 soccer team.

    The team was playing in tournaments leading up to a world championship and she missed too many days at school. Despite only needing English credits to graduate, and despite the teacher in her school saying she was up to date on her work, and despite having a 3.9 GPA, the local school district went after her saying she would be suspended and risked graduating which put her scholarship to college at risk.

    As I remember, the family took the school district to court where are judge looked at the lawyers for the school district and said “are you nuts?” (or something to that effect.)

    The bottom line is that we have school systems and people within those systems who cannot think critically or logically. They think that a child being exposed to different cultures and people is the same thing as hanging out on a street corner.

  • Here in the Soviet of Washington, there is a direct financial incentive: Local school districts get more money from the State, plain and simple. If a kid is absent, no money. Attending, money.

    Follow the money.

  • And now the head of the DC school system is trying to send this story down the memory hole, saying “of course she wasn’t considered a truant and the Post story is inaccurate. It was all a computer-generated misunderstanding.”

    Sorry, you can’t un-ring a bell. It might behoove you to have a real human vet your truancy letters before they go in the mail.


  • Conclusion: the authorities hold firm to the belief that no one who is educated under their instruction could ever accomplish anything substantial in any field which requires dedication.


  • gitar: They aren’t nuts. And, in fact, they’re being entirely logical. If they don’t jump on that kid for being out of school, then they can’t jump on anyone, because people can just point to her and say “oh I get it, rich white chicks get to just fly off to Europe and play soccer, my poor black boy gets kicked out of school”.

  • Isn’t the real motivation of the school district to preserve its federal funding, which is conditioned, at least in part, on achieving certain levels of student attendance? If so, just another way in which centralized control of education is a bad idea.

  • Frank, thanks for the link. Isn’t the “computer generated misunderstanding” excuse transparently false? The Post story says the following:

    “As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement, wrote in an e-mail to Avery’s parents, Drew Gagliano and Ying Lam, last year before she left to perform in Munich.

    So this was no issue of a form letter skipping past. There were other, quite intentional and apparently deliberate, communications in which the school offered no flexibility.

  • Density Duck,

    They aren’t nuts. And, in fact, they’re being entirely logical. If they don’t jump on that kid for being out of school, then they can’t jump on anyone….

    … unless the child is maintaining high grades, in which case the child’s education is proceeding very well indeed.

    /what’s in a name?

  • Office of Youth Engagement? Is it any wonder that public education has gotten more expensive without producing greater achievement?


  • I have to agree with DensityDuck and lean toward the school’s side on this. She’s enrolled in a school which has certain requirements, and should have to meet the same requirements as everyone else. Musical genius or not, she shouldn’t be getting special privileges over other kids.

    Even maintaining a high GPA isn’t enough. Grades don’t tell the whole story. If they did, we would all get GEDs and wouldn’t care about physically attending school.

    Besides, if this girl is such a genius, won’t she still be a genius in a few months during the Christmas break? Or next summer? Or even a better player when she’s 18?

    I guess what I’m asking is, was it so critical that she plays NOW? Was this an emergency?

  • John Rohan,

    What then, is the purpose of an education? Is it something that happens automatically if and only if one is enrolled in school and absent no more than ten school days a year?


  • Boblipton,

    There is a minimum standard that everyone should meet. When someone hires a high school graduate, the employer expects they will have a certain level of education under their belt.

    But if you really feel kids could learn just as much out in the real world , why does anyone go to school at all? Like Pippi Longstocking, simply learn from the school of life!

  • We used to able to get excused absence for achievements and competitions like this. You had to ask in advance and there was some maximum place on how many days can be spent by that. Did her parents just went ahead fully knowing the school disagree?

    While I agree that school system really should allow excused absence for special achievements/situations, public school system that requires students to be there is not really outrageous thing. It does not even sounds like a super exceptional set of rules, I heard about players skipping competitions cause their (non-US) school did not allowed another absence.

    Unless we are willing to pay for fully individualized school system that caters to all possible special situations, there are always going to be general sets of rules. It may be just me, but it would be easier for me to forgive a kid that missed due to mistake or failure then the one the parent (I think it were parents who made decision) who decided that he is above the rules that apply to everyone else.

  • John Rohan- You are conflating attendance with performance. If the kid maintains her GPA and does her homework, the fact that she was absent doing something that contributes to her education and upbringing is irrelevant. To punish a kid for being an ambassador for her country, whether it is through participating on a national team or an artistic “team” is small-minded and mean-spirited.
    If this girl is as much of a prodigy as it appears, I suspect that she will soon find an alternate to traditional schooling, anyhow.

  • “If they don’t jump on that kid for being out of school, then they can’t jump on anyone, because people can just point to her and say “oh I get it, rich white chicks get to just fly off to Europe and play soccer, my poor black boy gets kicked out of school”.”


    This is the death of common sense — i.e., the claim that no one can meaningfully distinguish between absences for playing in world-class piano competitions and other far less compelling reasons for absence from school. Moreover, your introduction of racial and socia-economic status here is rather odd, since it appears to be undisputed that the young woman in question is not rich, and there is no suggestion by anyone that her race has anything to do with this.

  • John, don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m on your side just because we’re pointed in the same direction. You’ve got a credentialism-based view of education. I’m presenting a very cynical interpretation of why they’re punishing a star student.

  • Excellence is not appreciated in our public school system unless it can be factored into the massive cluster *$%* of assessments and ratings. Independent achievement doesn’t contribute to the bottom line. Besides, a child with talent, supportive parents and, I would venture guess, a well-rooted and carefully nurtured work ethic, might damage the self-esteem of less fortunate and less self-motivated students. “The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.”


    She’ll thrive without them, and I’m sure she and her parents will gladly send signed copies of every article, itinerary, award, achievement and commendation she gets to the local school board. In triplicate. Certified mail. It would be worth the extra $4 to know they got it.

    BTW, my daughter sings absolutely beautifully. I am a single mom , her father passed away and left nothing, not eligible for SS benefits and I make less than $30,000/year. We both work hard, we’ve gotten creative, and she gets the private lessons, is in 2 choirs at school and a world class children’s choir in our home city of Cincinnati. None of this is free, some of it is downright expensive. A lot of the kids in the children’s choir come from homes with ample financial resources. We don’t have the $$, but we have the drive to make it happen, so it happens.

    We have one shared flip phone, internet (for communication, school and work and netflix) but no cable tv (The tv itsself cost $5 at a yard sale, works fine.), we buy few clothes, most of them used, we rarely eat meat, we have a restaurant meal or pizza delivery every 2 weeks on pay day, our last vacation outside of a 100 mile radius was in 2010, but she is getting experiences that will last her whole life. Easy.

  • It strikes me as a bit of a leap of logic for John Rohan to get from my implication that some worthwhile things may be learned outside school to the conclusion that school is an utter waste of time. For some, it undoubtedly is and it may be inferred that if that is all the logic Mr. Rohan has learned in school, then his time therein has indeed been wasted. Undoubtedly it satisfies him and those with whom he is in agreement will doubtless leave his alleged thought processes unexamined. I suggest he consult Benjamin Franklin, who once noted that “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”

    Likewise, those on the other side of the debate are bogged down in their theoretical constructs of how management works. Management sets policy. Management also changes or varies policies and should do so with thought and wisdom. It is apparent to me and many others here that Avery Gagliano should have been granted a variation.

    That, however, would have required accountability and work by management, and the tendency is to reduce every job we perform to its minimum requirements. We seek to have our work reduced to well-paid sinecures. We even have our paychecks deposited to our accounts without the sordid necessity of going to a bank or, indeed, having to undergo the humiliation of saying “Thank you” to whoever hands us our unearned salaries.

    In my opinion, the matter of Avery Gagliano should have been referred immediately to the principal and as much higher as necessary to get it approved. After all, it would reflect well on her teachers, school and school district that a pupil of theirs (although possibly through no influence on their parts) had achieved such honors. Having failed to do that in a reasonable and timely fashion, it should have been achieved at her parents’ intervention (although it is quite possible they are not as cogent and compelling as a writer for the Washington Post).

    Even after the article had appeared, the situation was still salvageable. Chancellor Henderson might have granted the request and issued a statement that “I regret that this was not as clearly and persuasively brought to my attention earlier. I regret the error of this department and hope this settles the matter.” Henderson makes mistakes. I make mistakes. I dare suggest that even Walter Olson and John Rohan make the occasional mistakes. Some of us try to repair them.

    What burns my britches is the arrant nonsense of bureaucratic infallibility and unrepentant blame laying: it’s all the computers’ fault! DEM has jumped on the smoking gun there.

    The necessity for claiming that errors are beyond the control of the Man in Charge are twofold: the perception that the Man in Charge makes mistakes opens up the possibility that he can be replaced; and the insistence by the powers that be, like Pooh-Bah, that all is right as right can be.

    It is a large, complicated world out there and no simple set of rules will cover every situation. It requires a lot of judgment, some of which will be wrong. Let us not fear to admit to errors, for how else can we correct them?


  • Stan,

    I’m not conflating attendence with performance. GPA doesn’t tell the whole story. If it did, we would all get GEDs, or go to those SAT-style prep courses, and teach to the test.

    Attendence is part of the education experience. School is not just your grades on paper. It is also the exeriences of seeing science experiments in action, hearing other student’s questions/views on things, being exposed to different viewpoints (probably the biggest weakness of home schooling), and of course, it’s a very social experience as well.

    Once again, when a college or an employer considers someone with a high school diploma, they have an expectation that the student had these experiences to earn that diploma. 10 days in the overall is probably not critical, but where do you draw the line? Exactly how many days in a row?


    You are distorting what I said quite a bit, and quoting Ben Franklin (who happens to be my direct ancestor!). See the above statement. Also, as someone else pointed out, there is the issue of the unreasonable resource burden on a school if they have to cater to the individual whims of every student.

  • “Also, as someone else pointed out, there is the issue of the unreasonable resource burden on a school if they have to cater to the individual whims of every student.”

    I see…

    It’s too hard to help these kids learn to be anything but clock punchers. Attendance (attendance=knowledge, obviously) is all that matters and we just can’t be troubled with allowing kids to be more than that since that could be difficult. You know, with all the minutes spent thinking that a child with a gift and a valid reason can be out of your sight while she represents the U.S. and all. Extra- curricular should be defined as after school. That she had parents with the forethought to request of the school an exception with a documented learning schedule in advance is no matter. Be here or face the consequences. Papers please.

    Due to this and much more, her parents are making the best of this farce that they can: they are home schooling her now. Even though she was succeeding and enjoyed school, they need to get out of the system to allow her to really grow as a person. That, or find one of those wonderful clock-punching jobs for which the school is so equipped to produce bodies.

    The line for lobotomies starts on the left.

  • John Rohan, you undermine your own position quite well: “School is not just your grades on paper. It is also the exeriences of seeing science experiments in action, hearing other student’s questions/views on things, being exposed to different viewpoints (probably the biggest weakness of home schooling), and of course, it’s a very social experience as well.”

    Indeed, all of these things are true. That is why it is immediately obvious that this girl should be allowed to go to those musical performances. Anyone can see that those experiences would be more educational, in terms of being exposed to different viewpoints, different cultures, and different social experiences, than would those few extra days of school.

    Where do you draw the line, you ask? Well, that requires some judgment, but it obviously is not at 10 days. The 10 day limit is set assuming that the 10 missed days are filled with little to no educational value (i.e., sick in bed). The only thing on your list she wouldn’t get more of on these trips than at school is “seeing science experiments in action”. It seems like a pretty weak argument.

  • Not to pile on (too much anyway), but two weeks of high school offers nothing even remotely as educational as two weeks of travel as part of a world-class performing youth orchestra. Does anyone really believe that when this young woman looks back at her HS years, she will have any regrets about those two school weeks she missed to advance what is likely to be her successful music career.. If she has ambitions to attend college, which candidate do you believe a college would prefer, one who might have a marginally higher GPA or the candidate who is a world-class musician who has demonstrated that talent by being selected for a world tour? As someone who once took a week off from college to compete in the world championships of an olymic sailing class, (without negative effect on my grades) I know what my preference would be.

  • Delurking and Stan,

    It’s an interesting argument that the students performance tour would have more educational value than two weeks in school. And it’s very possibly true. But what if the student wanted two weeks off to work for Greenpeace? To protest abortion clinics? To stump for a political candidate? To fight in the UFC? These all offer educational value, but some people would certainly argue their value is very low, and so you put the school in the uncomfortable position of having to sit in judgement on the merits of these requests. You also put the school in the position of having to keep track of what student missed what assignments. After all, if you give this girl 10 days off, you have to allow the same opportunity to everyone else.


    Calling someone a “clock puncher” for expecting a certain level of school attendence is unfair. In fact, if you go that route, then those who say the trip is no problem because she has a good GPA could similarly be labeled “bean counters”.

  • John Rohan,

    Yes, I do expect educators to be able to decide whether missing 10 days of school was an educational experience or is the same as standing on a street corner doing nothing.

    If educators cannot recognize educational opportunities that benefit kids in their lives, maybe we should be looking at the educators making the “decisions” rather than the child or the educational opportunity.

    As to “keeping track of assignments,” most schools now track assignments on computer. A parent can sign on to a school website, see the assignments, whether their child has completed them, the grade etc. The information is already there and accessible and requires no more effort than the teacher and system is currently exerting.

  • I might have to side with the school system on this one. Why? Because in my experience Petula is not the writer to rely on for things like thoughtful opinions. Or facts.